For Zhao to bring the story to life, one person who was important to her journey was visual effects supervisor Stephane Ceretti. Before Zhao had even shot the Oscar-winning “Nomadland,” Zhao had met Ceretti.
For “The Eternals,” she continued shooting on practical locations, working in natural light and utilizing the magic hour instead of being in a studio working against green and blue screen. Zhao explains, “Planet Earth is such a big part of the emotional arc of the story that we wanted to go out there and capture it.”
Having seen “The Rider,” Ceretti understood the director’s love for nature and light. “It felt a shame to not to push into this. When you’re on a set, you’re limited with space and it becomes restrictive. Whereas on the beach you have all the real estate and you can move around.”
The film was shot across London and the Canary Islands. Ceretti explains he found advantages in being on location. Ceretti says, “Doing the scenes in nature you use so much space.”
For the film’s opening sequence, which takes place on a beach, the initial area they had found was a former army ground and turned out to be unsafe to shoot on. Camera operator Joshua James Richards ended up finding another location close to the beach and the scene was moved. Coming from independent film, Zhao was used to moving crew at the last minute. Says Zhao, “It was impressive to see the VFX teams making calls to get them updated. It was a privilege and an incredible experience to learn how one idea trickles down, and then we get to post where I get to see it come together. Because that scene is just an empty field with actors. What you see is the magic of what Stef and his team did.”
Ceretti appreciated Zhao’s culturally rich background, enhanced by her work in the Independent world. “Chloe’s mind is very complex and detailed. Everything that was put into the movie was explained and thought through,” he says. Zhao adds that it was important to bring in a multi-cultural element to the film in production design, costume and visual effects. “We brought in elements and symbols from South America, Asia and Western culture.”
Much of the film pays tribute to Jack Kirby, who in 1976 created the characters — a group of aliens defending Earth with superhuman powers. Everything was linked to Kirby’s designs, says Zhao. “Right down to the costumes by Sammy Sheldon. When we were world-building, we looked at what the Celestials, the World Forge and what the Domo spaceship looked like. But it all trickled down to Jack.”
When it came to filming in natural light and capturing the magic hour, Ceretti says it was about learning to let go as a visual effects artist. He says, “All the shots looked different and a tendency that we have as visual effects people is to replace the sky and they all look the same and continuous. Chloe said, ‘No, we need to work on the shots and the way they look. We went there and we embraced the natural feel of it all. Every shot is going to look different and it’s okay.’ That’s something that we pushed on our vendors and made sure they understood that. I think it paid off and made it feel grounded.”
A big learning curve for Zhao was in building the World Forge. In the film, Gemma Chan’s Sersi speaks to Arishem and learns how she was created, and the World Forge environment appears behind her in the space void. Its interior was comprised of thousands of individual set pieces, dressed in layers of detail such as crystal stalagmites and gold filaments. Zhao recalls, “It took us a while to get the story in place. Gemma Chan is also the only one in it, but when you don’t know what you’re looking for, it was hard for me to let her know what to do.”
For its design inspiration, Zhao says she looked at sea creatures such as the jellyfish. “We asked ourselves what is this place for. It takes in energy and builds Eternals and powers them. So there was this shape of tentacles like a jellyfish and it’s absorbing energy.”
Again, Kirby’s designs weres echoed as Ceretti and his team worked on getting the right rhythm and geometrical shapes as Sersi moves from one place to another, transitioning through the environment. They came up with the idea of the place being dome-shaped, inspired by the jellyfish idea.
The design for the memory wall within the World Forge harkens back to Zhao’s first pitch. “The idea was it was this macro version of the inside of a leaf with the cells,” says Zhao. “When you have unlimited choices, and you have the freedom and to find all design inspiration from Jack Kirby but also use the inspiration of nature and minerals is what helped us build that.”
Zhao notes that the sequences in the World Forge always had sun. “We like to backlight our actors in the real world, so in that sequence, it’s all backlit.”
Another challenge lay in the texture and skin design of the Deviants, the mysterious alien creatures. “Chloe was so specific. She said, ‘I want them to be colorful and unlike anything you’ve seen before. They needed to feel alien, yet common to Earth in their shapes,” Ceretti explains. Ceretti was inspired by his love for manga when designing them.
Chloe Zhao wanted a monster audiences hadn’t seen before.
Working with Ceretti from the beginning through the film’s post-production made Zhao fall in love with visual effects. “It was an incredible learning process. It was scary at first. One of the first things Stef showed me was a sequence from “Ant-Man” just to help me understand how to break down a sequence [in VFX] and go all the way to the edit and how post-viz works.” Zhao adds, “We talked about it all the time, Why don’t we study VFX in school and how that could enhance our process.”